Saturday, September 20, 2014

Learnings from Edgar Whitney – Part 1

I started my watercolour adventure a few years ago and during that time acquired numerous books and videos.

Most watercolour books and videos are “how to” books that provide exercises for the reader to follow and reproduce a piece of art. It is an excellent way to learn. For the first years, I was very pleased with this approach. However in the past year, this type of approach is losing its appeal.

I find this approach akin to riding a bike with training wheels on a pre-set course. I’ve been wanting to do away with the training wheels and ride my bike wherever I please. To do so, I want to develop slightly different skills that will allow me to ride anywhere. With regard to my watercolours, I want to be able to look at a scene or photo and be able to develop my own creation from what is before me or in my head.

The books recently acquired focus on developing those skills. Recently, I’ve been reading up on Edgar Whitney (1891 - 1987). Although Whitney was a very good watercolorist, his legacy is his teachings. From the mid-1950's until the early 1980's Whitney and his contemporaries laid the groundwork for a new generation of painters that in many ways remains unchallenged.

Although the principles of design which he taught had been established generations before him, he was able to distill these elements and principles in manners that allowed his students to create strong,  emotionally and relevant paintings that were aesthetically pleasing.

This week, I want to share how he communicated the seven elements of designs. Next week, I’ll recap his principles of design. Whitney called the elements the “tools” and the principles the “rules”.

Together, the seven elements of design increase the quality and substance of paintings. Here is a snapshot of the elements as described by Whitney:

1. Line
Any painting can possess lots of line variety but only one type should dominate. This is particularly true when considering if the dominance should be curved or straight or thick or thin.

2. Value
Values alone can be used to express form and are more important than color for readability. Color merely embellishes appearances. The mood of the painting can be set by a dominance of one value throughout and is called the “key”. I learned this from Neal (nmserie) a couple of years ago.

3. Colour
Colour has three properties: hue, intensity and value. When colors are adjacent (see colour wheel), they harmonize, hues diametrically opposite to each other on the wheel are complimentary and tend to enhance one another when set side by side. Intensity is the strength of the colour. Value is the lightness or darkness of any colour

4. Texture
Texture has four qualities – rough, smooth, soft and hard. It enriches and augments and is an antidote for monotony in a too pure area.

5. Shape
Shape is anything that has height and width. Shapes can be curved, angular or rectangular, and all three can be used in one painting, but only one category should dominate. There are also positive and negative shapes. A good shape has two different dimensions – wider than it is tall or taller than it is wide, oblique or slanted with interlocking edges.

6. Size
It is the relationship of sizes in a painting that must be carefully planned. To entertain the eye, use a variety of size in objects as well as positive and negative areas. 

7. Direction
The lines and shapes have a directional thrust which is either horizontal, vertical or oblique. Again, only one direction should dominate to convey the spirit of the painting. Horizontal dominance suggest tranquility and repose while vertical shapes and lines suggest austerity and strength while oblique dominance expresses drama and excitement.

                         "Remember – texture is where the value changes." Edward Whitney

There are many modern day watercolourist who credit their success to the teachings of Whitney. Some of them include: John Salminen, Tony Couch, Judi Wagner, etc.

Here is a painting from Whitney
Edgar Whitney painting

Notice how the white shape of the lighthouse connects down to the white shape of the wave spray. Midtones and some darks surround and interlock with this well-designed white shape which is of two different dimensions -- oblique with interlocking interest on the edges. The three midtone shapes are all different in sizes and shapes.

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Have a great week

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